Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dialogue Isn't Cheap

That's nothing. You should see inside a writer's head.
I'm a judge for the NYC Midnight Screenwriting Challenge. The first-round participants are asked to write short scripts, no longer than 12 pages each, while incorporating a particular genre, person, and location (i.e., sci-fi, a sports coach, and a hospital. Or comedy, pro golfer, and Times Square). It's gratifying to see how creative and varied the writers can be, given the time limits and constraints imposed upon them.

One thing that's stuck out about a lot of the entries is the dialogue. Broadly, that there's far too much of it. Dialogue is a sticking point for a lot of writers, both novice and experienced. It's the first thing that freshly-minted screenwriters want to write (who doesn't want to take on multiple personalities and make 'em fight?), but among the hardest aspects of the craft to master.

I'm frequently asked by my students, "How can I make the dialogue sound more realistic?" or "I want my dialogue to sound like real people talking. How do I do that?"

My response to these questions is simple. Don't.

UCLA screenwriting co-chair Richard Walter says, "You can hear how real people talk on any street corner for free. Film dialogue is worth the price of admission." But it's more than that.

A common exercise that screenwriting professors give to their students is to have them eavesdrop on a conversation and transcribe it verbatim into screenplay format. Chances are if you're reading this, at some point in your past, an eager screenwriting student sat near you and overheard your conversation about what to buy at the grocery store, or about who's dating whom, or about that weird rash that even your dermatologist can't figure out.

Here's the thing about the way real people talk: it's boring. We say "um," "uh," and "you know." We pause. We lose our train of thought. We go on tangents. Basically, we do everything that should not be put into your characters' dialogue. No one wants to hear how real people talk. On the flip side, if you make your dialogue too pedantic and impeccable, there's the trap of falling into the unrealistic dialogue category. You don't want everyone in your script to sound like they're all the same person.

Bottom line, a lot of thought must go into dialogue. A lot. It needs to be integrated, the idea being that every line has to tell us something more about the character and simultaneously advance the story.

Here's the basics of how I tell my students to think about it:

1. Write it. For starters, just write down whatever you want, at first. Don't worry about making it perfect the first time through. It won't be. This frequently leads to scenes such as:


JIM, 14, in a too-big football jersey, munches cereal at the table. His droopy eyes are red.

BELLA, 44, t-crosser and i-dotter, explodes in. A tornado in a scrap yard. She spots an open milk carton on the counter.

              I don't know why you don't listen to me,
              Jim. If I've told you once, I've told
              you a thousand times: put the milk in
              the fridge when you're done with it! Do
              you know what happens to warm milk?
              It stinks up the whole kitchen, and I
              won't tolerate another bad-smelling
              room in this house. Yours is enough.

We learn a lot in this scene, but it can be better.

2. Truncate it. Take one sentence to say what five sentences say. This is a per-situation directive, but the point is to say the dialogue in as few sentences as possible. This is the foundation of wit:

              You want my kitchen to smell like your
              shit-house room?

Saying the same thing with less is more effective. But is it the most effective way of all?

3. Default to an action. Go dialogue-free. It's possibly the most powerful and universal method for telling the story (it is "lights, camera, action, after all).

Bella spots an open milk carton on the counter.

She grabs it, throws it into the fridge, slams the door shut.

Jim jumps, his spoonful of cereal flies into his face.


Bella spots an open milk carton on the counter.

She grabs it, stomps out.


A catastrophe of biblical proportions. Clothing piles creep up the wall like frozen ocean waves.

Bella pounds in, wrinkles her nose, sets the milk carton atop the clothing pile on Jim's hidden bed, exits.

Either way, Bella makes her point, and without saying a word. In fact, we learn quite a bit about Bella, Jim, and their relationship in very few, dialogue-free lines.

The point is, you'll have trouble going dialogue-free all the time, but if you apply the "less is more" adage, then you may be surprised at how cleverer and more streamlined your script will become.

Another great example of this (thanks to Tim Albaugh for pointing this one out) can be found in Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich screenplay. In this scene, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) attempts to relay the experience of being in Malkovich's head to his disinterested love interest, Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener). She can say almost anything in response to his rambling, fantastical, dorky story, but she defaults to an action, and it's the scene's punch line:

Sometimes the very best dialogue is no dialogue at all.

But sometimes, you have to use it. That's fine. The point is that it's better to first ask, "Should I use dialogue here?" than "What dialogue should I use here?" at least to start. When you do need dialogue, keep it quick and to the point.

In Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy, there are scores of examples of tight, well-written dialogue. There's a lot of story packed into every scene, and it's because there's only as much talking as there needs to be.

In the following scene from The Dark Knight, a lot needs to happen:

1. District Attorney Harvey Dent needs to meet Batman.
2. We need to understand that both Lieutenant Jim Gordon and Dent have people working for them who may not be trustworthy.
3. Dent and Gordon don't even necessarily trust each other.
4. The mob's money launderer, Lau, has fled to Hong Kong.
5. Gordon and Dent need Lau back in Gotham.
6. Dent and Gordon lack the legal means to bring Lau back.
7. Are they all on the same page with regards to what will happen to Lau if he's brought back?
8. Are all three men clear on the possible consequences to themselves if Lau's brought back?

That's most of it. But screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan convey this information in just over a page:

The scene pushes the story ahead. Batman has the green light to "extradite" Lau in his own way. Even the last line, thrown in for a bit of comic relief, also proves to Dent that Batman's the right man for the job. Lots of information in tightly-packed dialogue. Such is good screenwriting, and thus a central tenet of the craft can be distilled: it takes no time to write a lot, but it takes a lot of practice to write a little. Dialogue should not be cheap, and a practiced writer won't use it cheaply.

1 comment:

  1. Great article.
    I find the Batman dialogue page to be so sparse as to be almost action. It's not what is said, but How it's said.
    Reading it, even though I knew what information had to be conveyed, I found the dialogue page hard to follow or understand. It seems to me that dialogue must be absorbed along with the action and facial expression of the actors to be completely understood. (Or maybe, I just have some kind of dyslexia.)
    I agree that less is more.
    I write short stories, and work very hard on dialogue. Like the spaghetti westerns, I prefer less dialogue, more action.